Some years ago a company I was involved in produced a number of magazines for JWT EMEA called Out of the Blue: designed to promote JWT, they won two WPP Atticus awards and lots of other plaudits besides.
One of the recurring themes was corporate social responsibility, companies trying to do good things to improve their image – and the world. And why not?
Since then It’s grown into a veritable industry: PR and lobbying companies all over the world earning and spending billions trying to show that capitalism works for everyone. The trouble is: it doesn’t.
That’s been highlighted today by former British Tory prime minister John Major (left) saying that the energy companies that supply the UK – allegedly in a free market, ha ha – should be hammered with a huge tax on their profits which should be given by the Government to all those people who will be forced to choose between heating their homes and eating something.
What’s not to like? Major may have had his shortcomings in office, but he was saddled with a dysfunctional Tory party (nothing much changes there then) and his strange predilection for Edwina Currie. But, strangely for a Tory, he does have an instinct for the important issues most UK people worry about.
Major thinks the energy companies supplying the UK, who are all increasing their prices by ten per cent plus – way ahead of any increase in real costs – are assholes. And they are.
So are tax dodgers like Amazon, Apple and Google. And, indeed, the big supermarkets who have raised their prices by 35 per cent over the past five years when food, actually, hasn’t gone up by nearly that much.
So all that hot air that JWT chief planner Richard Block and mag editor, the late Chrissie Barker, spent lauding CSR was a waste of effort? Yes, in one way it was. Big companies will do anything they can to improve their profits (and the pay packets of their top executives in the process) and, as far as they’re concerned, the rest of the world can fuck off. That’s the American way of business and that way still rules.
At the same time time they’ll probably increase their CSR budgets, forgetting that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something – in this case, changing your behaviour.
There was an interesting article in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday by free market zealot Maurice Saatchi. Two thirds of the way through Maurice had argued a convincing case that the world’s bigger companies were over-mighty and accountable to no-one, therefore a danger. Then he backtracked – Whoops, what was he saying?
But he was right most of the time, as is another Tory John Major. If big companies can’t behave decently they should be dismembered; there’s enough competition law to do it.
Teddy Roosevelt, hardly a socialist, did it a hundred or so years ago when he broke up Standard Oil into the ‘seven sisters,’ who now include ExxonMobil, BP and so on.
London, at the moment, is infested by tycoons from Russia and other places who think they’re popular because they buy football clubs and spend lots of money in night clubs.
In fact, most Londoners would sooner string them up from the nearest lamp post.
It might be over the top to see this as a crisis of capitalism. But there’s a growing onus on big companies – not just exploitative energy companies – to show that their ‘consciences’ stretch to more than an addendum to the PR budget.